By Dr.Qais Ghanem
In my recently published book, MY ARAB SPRING MY CANADA (Amazon.com), one of the predictions I made was that, irrespective of the pace of democratic and social transformation, there would be an immediate positive change in the sense of dignity and self confidence in the Arab nation as a whole. I thought that the Arabs, who have been steadily and universally demonized as being anti-democracy, anti-modernity and against human rights, especially for women, would raise their heads in pride of the modest yet seminal achievements of the Arab Spring, and no longer camouflage their names or hide their identities, as many have done previously to “pass” as non-Arabs.
It was therefore very gratifying for me to hear that, for the first time ever, the large group of Arab Ambassadors in the Canadian capital, Ottawa, decided to launch an annual event where they would honour Canadians of Arab origin for their contributions to Canadian society at large, at a huge gala party at the Museum of Civilization, Ottawa, on Monday 17th June 2013. Previously, each embassy would hold an annual reception on the occasion of its own national day, usually well attended because of the lavish and delicious food the chosen hotel would provide. As might be expected most, but by no means all, the attendees would be originally from the country holding the reception. In this, Arab embassies were no different from those of Azerbaijan or India or Mexico.
The relationship between Arab embassies and Canadians originating from those countries was friendly but never close. Arab Canadians knew in the past that an Egyptian ambassador, to name a random example, was simply an employee, at the beck and call of the ministry of foreign affairs in Cairo, and an extension of the minister, who in turn was the loyal servant of the dictator there. There was little respect for such officials, and certainly no love. Now, however, I sense a palpable and welcome difference. I would anticipate that future receptions in countries where there was a major change will be much more lively and successful.
It is for all the above that this initiative of the group of Arab Ambassadors is a brilliant, unique and welcome idea. 35 Canadians of Arab origin have been nominated from an estimated 400,000 for excellence in 7 different categories. The dean of ambassadors, H.E. Smail Benamara of Algeria stated “Canada has always embraced people from our countries, and we are proud to highlight some of their accomplishments.”
The awards were given for contributions in seven different categories: “artistic”, “business”, “expertise”, “political”, “scientific”, “youth” and “charity” which would be better called “volunteering”. Five individuals were nominated for each category, and the top winner out of those five was named, although the ambassadors have emphasized that all five should consider themselves winners since the short list was arrived at after careful selection. The process of selection itself was exemplary. Knowing the sensitivities among different Arab groups, the final process was entrusted to a completely non-Arab selection committee thus ensuring the presence of transparency and the absence of country bias. I was personally proud to have been nominated with the volunteer/charity group and within the larger group of 35 prominent Arab Canadians some with household names such as Palestinian Senator Pierre Debane, Egyptian Mamdouh Shoukri, President of York University and Lebanese singer Julie Nesrallah.
Perhaps the acceptance speech that touched me the most was that by Senator Debane when he referred to Canada as the country which has been so generous to us. He said “When I see Palestinians living in refugee camps, I say to my wife: I should have been there; yet here I am, first as professor of law then Member of Parliament in this country that has encouraged us to not forget our roots.”
The importance of this event cannot be overemphasized. The diplomatic representatives of about one third of a billion people on this earth have taken a very appropriate and timely initiative, which reflects the sense of dignity if not pride in the Arab world since the Arab Spring. They did not allow the inevitable problems still occurring in the Middle East, some extremely serious, to deter them from thinking anew to chart a new course in their relationship with Arab Canadians, to the mutual benefit of both groups.
It might also be a source of pride for Yemenis to know that 3 out of the 35 nominees (9%) were Yemenis from Hadhramaut (Dr. Mohammed Baobeid), Sanaa (Zahra Al-Harazi) and Aden (Dr. Qais Ghanem). Considering the very small number of Yemenis in Canada, compared to huge numbers of Lebanese and Egyptions, this is a remarkably high percentage.
*Dr Qais Ghanem is a retired neurologist, radio show host, poet and novelist. His two novels are Final Flight from Sanaa and Two Boys from Aden College. His non-fiction is My Arab Spring My Canada. His combined English/Arabic poetry book is From Left to Right.
Follow him on Twitter @DialogueLuta
Website: Dialogue with Diversity